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Lung cancer screening

Men and women discussing lung cancer

This page tells you about screening for lung cancer. You can find information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Lung cancer screening

Screening means testing people for the early stages of a disease before they have any symptoms. Before screening for any type of cancer can be carried out, doctors must have an accurate and safe test to use. The test must be reliable in picking up cancers that are there. And it must not give false positive results. A false positive result means that a test makes it look as though a cancer could be present when it isn't.

At the moment there is no national screening programme for lung cancer in the UK. For screening to be introduced, we need a test that is simple, quick, not too expensive, and not harmful. We don't have that yet.

Lung cancer is often picked up on chest X-ray. But by the time it is diagnosed this way, it is often quite advanced. Researchers are trying to find other screening tests that may help to diagnose lung cancer earlier. You can read about these in our lung cancer research section. The UK Health Technology Assessment programme is currently assessing screening methods. 

It is always more cost effective to screen people at high risk, rather than screen everyone. For lung cancer, people who smoke are at higher risk. So some trials are seeing whether screening smokers is worthwhile.
 

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What screening is

Screening means testing people for early stages of a disease before they have any symptoms. It is an important part of health care for some cancers. Before screening for any type of cancer can be carried out, doctors must have an accurate test to use. The test must be reliable in picking up cancers that are there. And it must not give false positive results. A false positive result means that a test makes it look as though a cancer could be present when it isn't.

 

Lung cancer screening in the UK

At the moment there is no national screening programme for lung cancer in the UK. Currently screening is not possible for lung cancer because of the

  • Lack of a sensitive enough test
  • Low number of cancers that would be found 
  • High costs involved
  • Risks of current tests

For screening to be introduced, we need a test that is simple, quick, not too expensive, and not harmful. Current tests such as X-rays can't usually show early stage cancers and they have some risks. The lungs are very sensitive to radiation and frequent X-rays may cause lung damage. X-rays can also find lung changes that look like cancer and need to be checked by further tests, such as a biopsy. The further tests can cause problems for some people.

The UK Health Technology Assessment programme is currently assessing tests that could be used to screen for lung cancer.

 

Research into lung cancer screening

Researchers are checking whether it is possible to screen groups of people at high risk of developing lung cancer. People at high risk of lung cancer include people who smoke. People who have lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are also at higher risk. It is always more cost effective to screen people at high risk, rather than to screen everyone. 

Research is also going on to try to find better tests to find lung cancer early. Trials are looking at using new methods of detecting lung cancer. 

You can find detailed information about research into lung cancer screening on this website.

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Updated: 25 March 2014